By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
part 2 of 2
In their lawsuit against the City of Denver, Lane, Sullivan, Powell and two women claim that the city has taken sides, choosing to align itself with Planned Parenthood. "Complaints...by Planned Parenthood, its employees and supporters are routinely and vigorously prosecuted, no matter how spurious," the suit reads, "but complaints by pro-life demonstrators are routinely ignored, no matter how meritorious."
Most neighbors, however, give the police department high marks for walking the line between respecting the protesters' rights and being responsive to the residents. It is the neighbors, rather than Planned Parenthood, who make most of the complaint calls to the cops.
Last spring, following Lane's break-in, Mayor Wellington Webb and representatives of the city attorneys' office, the police department and Planned Parenthood met with the neighbors to listen to their complaints and demands that something be done. In response, the police department sent a dozen officers door-to-door to survey the neighborhood--an action that the abortion protesters' suit cites as proof that the city has sided with Planned Parenthood.
Police officer Roger Barry, who was one of those who talked to the neighbors, denies that the survey was designed to stir up complaints against the anti-abortion crowd. "We wanted to know how the neighborhood was reacting," he says. "Who was disturbed and who wasn't--so that we could protect the rights of the majority."
The survey indicated that the intensity of neighbors' animosity dropped as their distance from the clinic grew. "After a block or so, it wasn't as bad," Barry says. "But those closest to the clinic were real upset about the constant noise, sometimes bizarre noise, and the photographs of aborted children."
Police officers work hard to maintain a neutrality they don't always feel, Barry says. There are pro-choice officers and anti-abortion officers, "but we're there to do a job--enforce the law--so we have to remain neutral."
An increasing number of laws pertain to such protests. There are federal statutes, including FACE (the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances act that President Bill Clinton signed into law in 1994), which prohibits protesters from physically blocking access to clinics. Recently the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a lower court's ruling that clinics are medical facilities and that their patients could, and should, be protected from the stress created by loud protests.
And there are local laws. Following Boulder's lead, and in response to trouble at 20th and Vine, Denver passed the so-called bubble rule in 1992. Colorado soon followed suit with a state statute. Under that law, once an individual is within a hundred-foot radius of a health-care facility, that individual can require other individuals to remain at least eight feet away.
But within those laws is a lot of gray area. City Attorney Jim Thomas, who directs the lawyers who prosecute violations of municipal statutes, says enforcing the laws was almost easier in the past, when protesters openly trespassed on clinic grounds and chained themselves to doors. Now they rely on words--written and shouted--to breach the barrier.
And while the city's noise ordinance is fairly encompassing, what constitutes a violation is often left to an officer's discretion. "Either way, we couldn't win," Barry says. There was a genuine sigh of relief among the District 2 officers when responsibility for 20th and Vine was passed to District 6.
"I can't imagine why," deadpans Captain Gerry Whitman of District 6.
Accusations of unequal enforcement. Lawsuits. Angry neighbors. Angry protesters. Angry pro-choice sympathizers. The line the police department must walk is so fine that now a supervisor goes along with the field officers on every protest-related call, Whitman says, which ties up an inordinate amount of manpower.
Whitman's district is about to embark on an education program that will spell out for the various groups exactly what their rights are and how they can exercise them. The fact that there appears to be no end to the protests in sight frustrates everyone involved, Whitman says. "But the survey indicated that the neighbors don't want the clinic to move; they just want everyone--Planned Parenthood, the protesters and the neighborhood--to co-exist in peace."
The wording of Denver's disturbing-the-peace ordinance would seem to fit the situation at 20th and Vine to a T: "It shall be unlawful for any person to disturb or tend to disturb the peace of others by violent, tumultuous, offensive, or obstreperous conduct or by loud or unusual noises or by unseemly, profane, obscene or offensive language calculated to provoke a breach of the peace...so that others in the vicinity are or may be disturbed thereby."
But one man's caterwauling is another's free speech--and sometimes it's difficult for the police to make that determination based on a complaint. "It's a tough balancing act," acknowledges Thomas. "The issue is, when does the volume rise to the level of disturbing the peace? And that can be up to an individual judge or jury to decide...Our test is whether there is a reasonable probability of prevailing at trial."
And it's often difficult for the city to prevail at trial, because a witness may refuse to cooperate or be unable to positively identify exactly who in a large group was too loud.